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'Chuck' recap: Return of the Volkoff(s)

April 12, 2011 |  9:00 am

NUP_143778_0392 For an episode that had so many elements that just didn’t work, I still kind of liked the latest episode of "Chuck."

Much of that can be laid at the feet of Timothy Dalton, who made his big return as Alexei Volkoff, villain of the year. At the same time, let’s offer a tip of the cap to Adam Baldwin and Joshua Gomez, who’ve turned their Casey/Morgan routine into something like a fine comic sketch, with perfect timing and the two acting like a couple that’s been married for ages.

Beyond that, there was a lot of clumsiness, mostly stemming from yet more ridiculous Chuck and Sarah relationship stuff and, well, the fact that Vivian Volkoff is not the villain her father was. But the good stuff was good enough to keep me going.

The central idea of the episode was that the CIA needed to get its hands on a mega-super-weapon called “The Norseman,” and the only man who could possibly make that happen was Alexei Volkoff himself.

The show kind of wrote itself into a corner with this. If Volkoff had actually made some sort of shift toward good in prison, that would have felt far too abrupt in his character arc. (The dude spent DECADES as one of the top baddies.) If he was still a bad guy, then the episode lacked a certain amount of suspense, because the question of which side Alexei was playing would be answered in the most obvious fashion. Thus, the resolution was probably going to be a disappointment either way, though the show at least gave something intriguing a shot by tying Volkoff’s return to evilness directly to the re-emergence of his daughter.

But that ultimately didn’t matter because Dalton is so much fun in this role. He seems to really enjoy playing this total bad guy who can simultaneously crack a wicked joke or two. I don’t imagine that the casting directors of Hollywood are watching “Chuck” and are sitting up in excitement at Dalton’s ability to play all of the many notes he’s asked to play, but he should be sending this episode out around town anyway. He’s great fun whether he’s talking about relationships with Chuck or saying wacky things apropos of nothing or shifting from happy-go-lucky good guy to intimidating villain on a dime.

When shows add villains to the cast in later seasons, it almost always goes poorly becuase the villain has to be defanged a bit to make it believable that the characters would hang out with said villain, but I wouldn’t mind Volkoff becoming a regular in Season 5, should it ever arrive.

The specifics of the mission were less important, though I did like the fact that Chuck saved the world via a game of Uno -- one of those silly gags the show manages to pull off now and again. On the other hand, the constant interruption of the mission for Chuck and Sarah to talk about Sarah’s desire to have Chuck sign a prenup was pretty stupid.

I get that having a little relationship angst every week is part of the show’s formula, but it too often intrudes on the rest of the story, even when the show tries to do something different as it did here. Theoretically, having Chuck try to be cool about something while Sarah gets a little worked up over it could have been fun, but the whole prenup plot felt like something we’ve already seen far too many times.

I also wasn’t too fond of the focus on Vivian Volkoff. The constant attempts to figure out just which side Alexei is playing are fun because, well, Dalton is fun. But the character of Vivian doesn’t have anything interesting about her, and Lauren Cohan isn’t making her interesting either.

The transition of Vivian from sweet girl to ultimate villain has mostly happened offscreen, but neither the actress nor writers have sold it at all. She just went from unassuming woman to complete terror, and there’s not much connective tissue between the two versions of the character. If you’re going to do this kind of a character arc, you need to really dig into that character’s psychology, something the show hasn’t had time to do with Vivian. So when she makes her dire threats, it’s hard to feel like the characters are in much danger. If her much-more-fascinating father couldn’t beat Team Bartowski, how could she?

In addition, you’ve got this Ellie subplot, where she’s unlocking all kinds of cool new information from the Orion laptop -- like the fact that there’s an “Agent X” out there somewhere. But it’s so directly tied to the fact that Chuck can’t be honest with his sister about his spy work (and now she -– gasp!-– is lying to HIM) that it feels tired even before it’s started. This is the most ridiculously drawn-out aspect of the show at this point, and even though it seems obvious we’re heading to a point where the two are finally honest with each other, that point can’t arrive soon enough.

Thank God, then, for Casey, Morgan, and Alex! The introduction of Alex to the Casey storyline has mostly worked, and tossing her into a relationship with Morgan has also been very funny. The two men living together and tossing funny lines back and forth? Great. Casey trying to find a way to be honest with Alex’s mother for the sake of his daughter? Surprisingly heartfelt. This wasn’t the most major plot of the episode, but there was just the right amount of laughs balanced with heart. And when “Chuck” is at its best, that’s what it does better than anything else.

Photo: Vivian Volkoff (Lauren Cohan) reveals her true plans. (Credit: NBC)

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-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

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